This is a Bible Study that I am presenting in our adult class this Sunday (Sept. 30, 2018). I find the topic very interesting and extremely relevant to our time and place. Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.
10 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. 11If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you in forced labor. 12If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; 13and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 14You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. 16But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, 18so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God. –Deuteronomy 20:10-18
Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” ’ –1 Samuel 15:1-3
Most of us have a problem conceiving of God commanding the things in these Bible passages. Did God really demand the killing of innocent women, children, and infants? Was this really done with God’s blessing according to His will? We struggle with the concept of a good, loving, and gracious God doing such matters.
This is why I have titled this study, “The God ‘Problem’”. These verses (and a few others) indeed present a problem for many believers. They are used against us by those outside our faith. They cause no minor amount of cognitive dissonance for those who are within the faith. They are oftentimes glossed over, ignored, or “hemmed and hawed” at. For the most part, they make us “twitchy.” What do we do with a God who commands such things?
First, I am interested to hear your initial thoughts in regards to these verses. Let’s take a few moments to process this and hear some thoughts before moving on. There will be no condemnation of folk’s ideas being shared regarding this. The intent, at least for now, is to see where folks are at and how they each wrestle with such matters.
I am interested in your thoughts and comments on this issue because of a very real debate in biblical interpretation. Over a decade ago, I tried to set up a pastors’ study dealing with the issue of biblical interpretation. I thought it would be an important discussion leading into the future. I contacted multiple college professors who, when I told them what I was trying to set up, lauded my efforts. They thought the topic of sincere and important relevance. (Unfortunately, none of them were able to accommodate the scheduling, so the retreat fell through.) I consider the topic of even more relevance today in light of the God “problem.” Why?
Interpreting the Bible is a rather interesting exercise fraught with multiple pit falls, and I’d like to illustrate this by showing how multiple interpretive methods deal with the above texts.
First, you have what I would call a “Fundamentalist” approach. Perhaps it would be better to call it a literal interpretation approach. Fundamentalist carries a bad connotation, but it really shouldn’t. Everyone is a fundamentalist at some level, but that is a topic of another discussion. (Although, given the nature of our class, I can see us going down a tangent for a while...) The literal approach takes these texts at face value, believes God said it, and doesn’t question it. God ordered such things, God is the highest authority, therefore, it must be right. These biblical interpreters are not bothered when others question whether or not the commands are just, fair, moral, etc. They are not bothered by God’s command to kill women and children. That’s just what God said to do, so it had to be done.
There are some very poignant critiques of such interpretations. “If God commanded you to kill and innocent person, would you do it?” Most of us would recoil at the thought. “God seems capricious. He doesn’t always invoke such violence. Why is God so inconsistent?” Who knows? “This God in the Old Testament seems very different from the God in the New Testament. Why are they so different?” This is why some early Christians wanted to do away with the OT and simply keep the NT. These are tough, tough questions to wrestle with. One ignores them at peril.
The second mode of interpretation goes to the other extreme. It basically says that the Bible was written by people who were passing on their understanding of what God did and said. We need to read this carefully and understand it well because it is the modus operandi of the leadership and much of the academic theological thought in our own denomination.
The Bible was written by people. This is not controversial. Everyone agrees that people wrote the words of the Bible.
Who were passing on THEIR understanding of what God did and said. This is the crucial point. Their understanding is key, and it opens up the door with how those who use this method interpret the above texts.
If the biblical writers are expressing their understanding of events and who God is...
And if human understanding is flawed and subject to bias and capriciousness...
Then, these stories are human understandings and not necessarily representative of God.
Add in another belief: God is love.
Since God is love, God would never order the deaths of innocent women and children. Therefore, these stories are people’s understandings and not God’s actual words or actions. We can disregard these teachings as human error.
This method of biblical interpretation is not without problems. For where does one come to understand who God is? What basis does one us when discerning what God is and is not like? Throughout history God (and for the purpose of our discussions, let’s add the thoughts about other gods from other religions) has been seen as benevolent, angry, kind, loving, warlike, demanding of sacrifice–animal and human, lustful, vengeful, bloodthirsty, omniscient, omnipotent, etc. Who is right and who is wrong? Who gets to decide which of these attributes is correct? Who gets to decide that one person’s god is better than another? Do we chalk it up to human experience? Do we chalk it up to group thought and identity?
Oftentimes, it boils down to my personal preference and experience. Oftentimes experience becomes the measuring stick whereby one discovers the “truth” of God. People with like shared experiences come together and worship their God. If something is outside that experience, it is rendered false.
The problem with this is 1) experiences become highly individualized. 2) In the long run, we create our own god discarding anything that makes us uncomfortable.
The third method of interpretation seeks to understand the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity. It recognizes the difficulty of conflicting texts in the scriptures, and it seeks to wrestle with them and understand them within the context of its original writers and hearers. It recognizes the difficulty of some of the biblical stories and commands issued by God, but it does not seek to discard them.
This method of interpretation seeks to see the Scriptures as a unified whole culminating in the ultimate revelation of God in the God/man of Jesus of Nazareth. It focuses on what Jesus said and did to redeem the world in the cross and the resurrection. All of scripture is interpreted in and through Jesus.
The problem with this mode of interpretation is that it becomes messy. It is not easy in the least. It does not give simple, easy answers and forces you to wrestle with some very difficult ideas and concepts. Sometimes–oftentimes if you are serious in your study–it does not allow you to resolve issues and makes you hold them in dynamic tension. It leaves you uncomfortable.
Perhaps there is another method of interpretation. I would be interested in your thoughts regarding such a thing. For me, I find myself squarely in the third methodology because, of all the problems, the problems presented by the third methodology are most palatable and allow me to be as faithful as possible to the biblical text and to who God is as revealed in that text. This methodology does not require me to cease asking questions and go with mere acceptance, and it allows me to address the very serious questions raised by those outside the Christian faith without damaging the integrity of the biblical text.